State issues new water curtailment orders, plans swifter crackdown on diversions


July 3, 2014

The Russian River, dry lakebed of Lake Mendocino, Friday Jan. 31, 2014
The Russian River pitches and yaws in to the dry lakebed of Lake Mendocino, Friday Jan. 31, 2014 in Ukiah.  (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

State officials on Wednesday issued new water curtailment orders to thousands of users and adopted emergency regulations that allow them to more quickly crack down on people who ignore orders to stop diverting water from drought-stricken rivers and streams, including the upper Russian River.

“Water rights holders who fail to comply with the regulations face immediate fines or administrative actions,” state Water Resources Control Board officials said in a news release.

The action, which included the approval of fines for noncompliant users, came on the second day of board discussion about drought-driven regulations.

During the public hearing the day before, some water users voiced strong objection to the new regulations, particularly measures that allow the state to fine noncompliant users up to $500 a day without a hearing. Those cited can ask for a hearing after they’re fined.

“Due process doesn’t mean you shoot the person and then give them a trial,” said Robert Mehlhaff, general counsel at Naglee Burke Irrigation District near Tracy, the Sacramento Bee reported.

But state officials said the new regulations were necessary because nearly 70 percent of the 7,910 curtailment orders already issued statewide in the past two months have been ignored.

For affected users, compliance includes responding to the state’s letter providing notice of curtailment.

The state water board began suspending some junior water rights througout the state in mid-May, citing state law that protects senior water rights when there is not enough supply to meet all water rights.

Users with junior rights in the Sacramento and San Joaquin watersheds were among the first to be notified.

About 650 water rights issued after 1954 on the upper Russian River were suspended in late May. Altogether, there are about 1,250 water rights issued by the state for the upper Russian River, the section north of Healdsburg. Further restrictions are expected.

The orders have forced Russian River-dependent farmers to utilize other water sources, such as wells and reservoirs, and to greatly reduce their water use.

The move — along with the action Wednesday to add punitive measures for non-compliance — have both draw strong opposition from some water users, including agricultural interests.

“We’re talking about people’s livelihoods,” said Paula Whealen, a water rights consultant and principal with Wagner & Bonsignore Consulting Civil Engineers in Sacramento. The firm currently is working with between 75 and 100 farmers on water projects on the Russian River.

The state on Wednesday added the main stem and north fork of the Eel River and its Van Duzen tributary to the growing list of streams under curtailment orders. The north fork of the Eel River originates in Trinity County and a short portion flows through Mendocino County. The Van Duzen River flows through Humboldt and Trinity counties. The main stem Eel River originates in Mendocino County above Potter Valley and flows north to Humboldt County.

It was unclear late Wednesday whether or how the water rights suspensions on the main stem of the Eel River would affect the diversion that shunts water south through a power plant to Potter Valley, then through a series of canals to Lake Mendocino and the Russian River.